Charles Steinmetz Papers,
1895-2001 (bulk 1909-1923)
2.5 Linear Ft.
Schenectady Museum Archives
15 Nott Terrace Heights
Schenectady, NY 12308
(518) 382-7890, ext. 241
Creation of this finding aid was supported by a grant from the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics
Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923) was one of the foremost inventors, scientists, engineers, researchers, and mathematicians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His most important work was performed at General Electric (GE) from 1892-1923. At GE his major research strengths included hysterisis, the power lost in an electrical system due to the nature of the conducting material; multi-phase motors; alternating current theory; and transient phenomena, the study of power surges and their effects on transmission systems. The study of electrical transients led Steinmetz to develop his lightning generator, in order to allow system tests in a laboratory setting. Steinmetz, who also conducted important work with arc lamps and railway and fan motors, was one of the engineers who helped transform electrical engineering into a respected profession, and was president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1901.
Steinmetz was born Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz in Breslau, Germany on April 9, 1865. He was the son of Carl Heinrich Steinmetz, a lithographer for a German railroad, and Caroline Neubert Steinmetz. Caroline was the widow of Carl Heinrich’s brother August. Caroline and August had two daughters, Marie (born 1853) and Clara (born 1857), before his death in 1864. Caroline died in a cholera epidemic in 1866. Carl Heinrich, by 1874, lived with Bertha Mache, a widow of a government official. Bertha had two children with her husband, Clara and Hedwig, and had a third daughter, Margarethe, with Carl Heinrich. Carl Heinrich died in 1890.
Steinmetz enrolled in the University of Breslau in 1883 and there he took classes in advanced mathematics, physics, and astronomy. In 1887 he began working towards a doctorate, focusing on synthetic geometry. Involvement in socialist activities and impending legal action forced him to flee to Zurich, Switzerland in 1888. At Zurich he decided on the study of engineering and enrolled at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute for one semester. Steinmetz’s mathematics background made him ideal to explore and understand the complex analyses involved with the new alternating current power systems.
Steinmetz came to the United States in 1889 by the invitation of his Zurich roommate Oscar Asmussen, and began working for Rudolph Eickemeyer as an assistant draftsman. Eickemeyer’s company produced hat-making machinery, and was expanding into the electrical field with dynamos, elevator motors and alternating-current railway motors. By 1890 he had become active in the AIEE, and by the time General Electric purchased Eickemeyer’s company in 1892, Steinmetz was already a respected electrical engineer.
Steinmetz joined GE’s Calculating Department in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Calculating Department made calculations based on designs created by the Railway and Alternating-Current engineering departments. Steinmetz was transferred to Schenectady with the Calculating Department in December 1893 and was placed in charge of the department in early 1894. Ernst Berg, another member of the department when it moved, became a close friend and roommate of Steinmetz. Berg, who handled Steinmetz’s administrative affairs, roomed with Steinmetz at rented homes on Washington Avenue and Liberty Street through 1901. As head of the Calculating Department, Steinmetz unofficially became chief engineer of the company and the Calculating Department grew and became responsible for much of the design work in the company.
As the most important engineer at General Electric, Steinmetz recognized the need for science-based industrial research at General Electric, particularly to maintain its advantage in the incandescent lamp field, which was being threatened by new developments in Europe. He recommended that the GE create a Research Laboratory, which was started in 1900. Steinmetz was named to the Research Lab’s advisory council, but the lab itself was directed by Willis R. Whitney, an MIT-educated chemist. By 1900, as motors became more standardized, design work, except for new lines of equipment, left the Calculating Department, and Steinmetz became a consulting engineer to the company. After 1901, when the laboratory on his lot in the GE Realty Plot was completed, Steinmetz did much of his work, which was focused at that time on electrochemistry and transient phenomena, at home. In 1910, based on Steinmetz’s recommendation to coordinate engineering design throughout the company and regain the originality in design that Steinmetz believed was lost due to the decentralization of design, GE established a Consulting Engineering Laboratory, with Steinmetz as technical director and C. W. Stone as administrator. Other members of this department included Ernst Alexanderson and John B. Taylor.
In 1919, the Consulting Engineering Laboratory merged with the Standardizing Laboratory to form the General Engineering Laboratory (GEL), which was directed by Lewis T. Robinson, former head of GE’s Standardizing Laboratory. Steinmetz took charge of the high-voltage section of the GEL.
Steinmetz became interested in activities outside of General Electric. From 1902 to 1914 he chaired the newly created Union College Department of Engineering. In 1911, the election of the Socialist Mayor George Lunn rekindled Steinmetz’s interest in Socialism. Steinmetz was appointed to the board of education in 1912 and elected its president. In 1913, Lunn created the board of parks and city planning, naming Steinmetz to the board, which then elected him chairman. When Lunn was defeated for reelection, Steinmetz was removed from his positions. Lunn was reelected in 1915, and with him Steinmetz as president of the common council. He was re-appointed to the school board, and again elected its president. A break with Lunn over neutrality in World War I led to the end of Steinmetz’s political career. Steinmetz’s political and business views converged in his corporate socialist view in which large corporations were the most efficient organization and could best serve the public, but first had to maintain its responsibilities toward society and workers.
Steinmetz initially opposed the United States entering World War I against Germany, his homeland. He supported the war once the United States entered, and in 1918, the Consulting Engineering Department did work for the Naval Consulting Department improving trajectories of high-explosive shells. He became involved in Vladimir Lenin’s attempt to electrify Soviet Russia, and continued his high-voltage experiments until his death in October 1923, shortly after returning from an extended tour of California. The tour had confirmed Steinmetz’s status as one of the most popular men in America but devastated him physically.
Joseph Hayden was transferred from Lynn to Schenectady in 1901 and assigned as an engineering laboratory assistant. He became Steinmetz’s administrator, filling the void left by Ernst Berg when he left Liberty Hall. Steinmetz adopted Hayden, and Hayden and his wife moved into Steinmetz’s home in the GE Realty Plot when it was completed in 1903. The Hayden family, including wife Corinne Rost, and children Joseph, born 1906, Marjorie (or Midge), born 1909, and William, born 1910, lived with Steinmetz the remainder of his life. The Hayden’s were often Steinmetz’s subjects for his favorite hobby, personal photography. Steinmetz took up personal photography while in Lynn, and continued the hobby until his death.
Scope and Content Note
This is a small artificial collection of materials created by the Hall of Electric History, containing materials related to Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Much of this material was created by Steinmetz himself, including reports, photographs and correspondence. However, most of the material was collected by members of Steinmetz’s family and by employees of the Hall of History, and much of this material is secondary. These include publications, clippings and articles. Schenectady Museum separately holds a collection of 2,000 glass negative photographs that were created by Steinmetz. A larger collection of Steinmetz’s papers is located at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
Box # 3